A day after former MVP Breanna Stewart left the Seattle Storm for the New York Liberty in free agency, All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot — who had already indicated she would not be returning to the Chicago Sky — made the same difficult decision, forgoing an opportunity to return home and play for the Storm in favor of joining a star-studded Liberty lineup.
Having added Stewart, Vandersloot and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones (via a January trade) this offseason to a group that already included All-WNBA second-team pick Sabrina Ionescu, New York now boasts four of the top 10 players when we ranked them at last year’s All-Star break.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Aces have three of our top six players (A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker and Kelsey Plum), along with two others (Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young) ranked in the top 25.
Superteams are nothing new in the WNBA, which has seen the Houston Comets dynasty feature MVPs Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes alongside Tina Thompson and the Minnesota Lynx win four championships with a core of MVPs Sylvia Fowles (part of the last two titles) and Maya Moore supported by All-Stars Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen.
The difference is the key role free agency played in creating these teams, with the Liberty signing Stewart and Vandersloot and the Aces adding Parker this offseason — the top three players to change teams.
Will New York look as good on the court with the new lineup as on paper? And can anyone else challenge the Liberty and Aces for WNBA supremacy this season? ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and MA Voepel take a look.
How will Courtney Vandersloot fit in at New York, and what will the lineup look like?
Kevin Pelton: Although Ionescu finished third in the league in assists per game last season (6.3), one spot behind Vandersloot (6.5), they should be comfortable playing in the same backcourt. Ionescu thrived after the Liberty signed point guard Crystal Dangerfield midseason and moved Dangerfield into the starting lineup. Freed from primary distribution responsibilities, Ionescu emerged as a nightly triple-double threat.
Undoubtedly, teaming up so many stars will require some sacrifice. Last season, Stewart finished 29% of the Storm’s plays with a shot, a trip to the free throw line or a turnover. Jones was at 24% with the Connecticut Sun, and Vandersloot’s usage rate was a career-high 22% as she played more of a score-first style with Parker to share playmaking duties.
Some of those opportunities in New York will come from replacing Natasha Howard, who had a 26% usage and was traded to the Dallas Wings as part of the Jones deal. But the Liberty’s other starter up front (center Stefanie Dolson, who will likely head to the bench) had a modest 17% usage rate, and Dangerfield (whose rights also went to Dallas) was at 13%.
Combined, the three starters in the newcomers’ spots used 56% of New York’s plays. The three stars coming in were at 75%. So there are going to be far fewer shots and touches to go around for them and holdover starters Ionescu and Betnijah Laney.
As long as everyone is comfortable with that arrangement, the fit should work well. Jones and Stewart are both capable of stepping away from the basket and have enough gravity as outside shooters (Stewart is a career 37% 3-point shooter, and Jones has hit 38% on lower volume) to space the floor while the other posts up or runs pick-and-rolls.
Meanwhile, the guards should largely be interchangeable as playmakers. Ionescu and Vandersloot ranked in the WNBA’s top five in pick-and-rolls per game that resulted in a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover out of that action in 2022, per Synergy Sports tracking. Because Vandersloot is a catch-and-shoot 3-point threat (35% career, 37% last season), she’s capable of spacing the floor when Ionescu is running the offense.
MA Voepel: If you think back to Ionescu’s days with the Oregon Ducks, she also thrived when she was on court with talented point guards in college — Maite Cazorla during Ionescu’s first three seasons, then Minyon Moore her last season. Ionescu led the Ducks in assists each season at Oregon, but Cazorla and Moore both had 130 or more assists playing with him. So, as Kevin pointed out, Ionescu and Vandersloot shouldn’t have any problem clicking. They also became Oregon coach Kelly Graves’ favorite WNBA backcourt; he coached Ionescu with the Ducks and Vandersloot while she was with the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
How can the Liberty make all these moves work under the salary cap?
Pelton: The seeds of this decision were set in motion when the Liberty managed to add to their cap space in the Jones trade. Because she took less than her maximum possible salary when re-signing with the Sun as a core player last year, Jones is making less than Howard. Meanwhile, New York also saved money in the swap of wings Rebecca Allen and Kayla Thornton to complete the deal.
That still doesn’t quite give the Liberty enough to offer the max to both players. Per salary data from HerHoopStats.com, they’d be able to sign Stewart and Vandersloot for a combined $364,514 — far less than they made combined last year, when Stewart was on a supermax deal ($228,094) and Vandersloot made $195,000.
New York could offer more money by waiving or trading one of two players with non-protected contracts, forward Michaela Onyenwere and guard DiDi Richards, although that wouldn’t get the Liberty to max deals for both Stewart and Vandersloot, which would total more than $400,000.
League sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that details of Vandersloot’s contract are still being negotiated as New York determines how to fit both players’ salaries under the league’s hard cap and that Stewart is expected to take substantially less money.
Some are already saying to pencil in an Aces-Liberty WNBA Finals matchup. What has to go right for these so-called superteams to reach their potential?
Alexa Philippou: The Liberty might have more pure talent on the roster, but it’ll be fascinating to watch how the group’s chemistry evolves over the course of the summer. As Kevin points out, there’s a lot to work through basketball-wise with so many high-usage stars on one team, but if you’re New York, maybe you don’t care all that much about the regular-season learning curve as long as the team puts it together for the playoffs. That said, Vandersloot, Stewart and Jones have experience playing with each other as part of UMMC Ekaterinburg (talk about superteams), so it’s not as if the newcomers are entirely starting from scratch. Stewart and Vandersloot will also have experience playing together for Fenerbahce before they get to Brooklyn.
The Aces have less novelty to adjust to than the Liberty, but for them to have their best shot at repeating, they’ll need Parker and Alysha Clark to help bolster their defense, something coach Becky Hammon consistently harped on in her first season. Depth was also an issue at times in 2022, but bringing in Clark and Cayla George might help with that.
There’s a new superteam era in the WNBA 🤩@LVAces | @nyliberty pic.twitter.com/v6lTt5f31Y
— espnW (@espnW) February 2, 2023
Vöpel: Superteams have fallen short in other leagues, including the NBA, but not so much in the WNBA. That’s in large part because we are still so early in this new era of more mobile free agency brought about with the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Players could engineer desired moves to other teams before — think Fowles to the Minnesota Lynx in 2015 — often through requesting/forcing trades.
The so-called superteams of the past — the Comets and Lynx — each won four championships. The Liberty squads of the late 1990s and early 2000s that reached the WNBA Finals but didn’t win a title were not superteams but a scrappy group led by savvy veterans. The Phoenix Mercury won three titles with strong teams anchored by Diana Taurasi. And the Mercury looked for a while last February as if they could be a superteam, but that was before Brittney Griner was detained in Russia and Tina Charles left the team midseason.
We’re in newer territory in the WNBA with players making moves to form superteams. It’s also worth noting that these two current superteams are owned by two billionaire owners in the league, despite the WNBA having a hard salary cap. They are leaning into ways beyond salary — including facilities — to make their franchises appealing.
The Aces and Liberty also reached superteam status just a little differently. The Aces were bad enough going back to their days in San Antonio as the Stars to get three consecutive No. 1 draft picks who have all panned out as terrific players: Plum, Wilson and Young in 2017-19. Then they added Gray and Parker via free agency.
The Liberty were able to get one No. 1 pick in Ionescu, then added Jones in a trade and Stewart and Vandersloot in free agency. And if reports are correct that players such as Stewart and Parker are taking less money to be on superteams, that in itself isn’t an indictment of the league’s hard salary cap. Those players could have gone anywhere. They wanted to be on teams that had a very strong chance of competing for the championship.
Who is your preseason favorite right now, knowing a lot of free agency moves are still coming?
Vöpel: I’m still giving just a bit of an edge to the Aces. History doesn’t favor it, since it’s been more than 20 years since a team won back-to-back titles. And the idea of anyone being able to contain Stewart and Jones inside — that’s a nightmare for opponents. But the Aces might be the one team that is up to the challenge. Wilson is the reigning MVP; the playoff version of Gray is usually epic; Plum and Young still feel they have a lot to prove; and, if it is Parker’s final season, she will leave it all on the court.
Pelton: I’m going with New York, by a hair. I love the fit of this Liberty lineup. I’m also betting that Gray won’t match the all-time run of shot-making she enjoyed in last year’s playoffs.
Philippe: New York won’t be the hottest team in the regular season as it figures out its chemistry, but the Liberty will click at the right time to bring home the franchise’s first championship.